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Venezuelan robbers give up, release dozens of hostages

Associated Press
Published January 30, 2008


ALTAGRACIA DE ORITUCO, Venezuela - Four gunmen who held more than 30 hostages inside a Venezuelan bank for more than 24 hours fled in an ambulance and were caught Tuesday along a roadside, where they surrendered and freed their last five captives.

The gunmen first let three hostages go and then negotiated with police while holding on to the last two, Guarico state Gov. Eduardo Manuitt said.

"This nightmare is over," Manuitt told state television.

They eventually turned over their guns and a grenade, Manuitt said. The pursuit ended less than two hours after the gunmen fled the Banco Provincial branch in the ambulance under a deal negotiated with police. Officials did not immediately say if the gunmen left with any money.

The standoff in this town southeast of Caracas began Monday morning with a botched robbery, when a uniformed police officer pulled up to use the cash machine and surprised the would-be robbers, said Amanda Saldivia, a reporter for the local Guarana Radio FM.

Under the deal with police, the gunmen were permitted to leave with five hostages who agreed to accompany them, freeing the rest of the captives at the bank. Police allowed the gunmen to flee because "they threatened to start killing the hostages in 20 minutes," Manuitt said.

It was not immediately known how many hostages were freed. Leon Enrique Cottin, the Venezuelan president of Spain's Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria, which owns Banco Provincial, said 33 hostages were held captive, but Manuitt said after the siege that nearly 40 hostages were freed at the bank.

Those freed were believed to include a 2-week-old infant, at least three other children under the age of 10, and a woman who is eight months pregnant. One man emerged with a bandaged hand, carrying a girl in his arms.

"After five or six hours, they began to let down their guard, saying, 'You aren't going to die,'" freed hostage Juan Carlos Gil said of his captors. "They were nervous, but it was all an atmosphere as if they were everyone's friends."

His account differed from that of Justice Minister Ramon Rodriguez Chacin, who said during the standoff that the gunmen had been taking drugs, making the situation particularly volatile.

Gil said he never saw any of the gunmen use drugs and they appeared sober.

[Last modified January 30, 2008, 01:54:10]

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